Chantal Gibson is an artist-educator living in Vancouver with ancestral roots in Nova Scotia. Her visual art collection Historical In(ter)ventions, a series of altered history book sculptures, dismantles text to highlight language as a colonial mechanism of oppression. How She Read is another altered book, a genre-blurring extension of her artistic practice. Sculpting black text against a white page, her poems forge new spaces that challenge historic representations of Black womanhood and Otherness in the Canadian cultural imagination. How She Read is Gibson’s debut book of poetry. An award-winning teacher, she teaches writing and visual communication in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at Simon Fraser University.
How She Read is obviously constructed as a book-length project. How did it originally begin, and what did you learn through the process?
How She Read is about the representation of Black women across the Canadian cultural landscape and about the ways we learn to read—words, sentences, books, bodies, images, lessons and ideologies—in a colonial education system. It has many beginnings…
It starts with my mother Lorraine Gibson, who was born in Nova Scotia. She was my first book. Her first-grade photo is on the front cover. She was the only Black woman in our Oshawa neighbourhoods, the only Black woman in our tiny Northern BC town. Visible and invisible at the same time. I watched her watching people watching her. I learned her smile, her laugh, and how to navigate the daily grind of microaggressions. She died when I was 18.
It starts with my primary, secondary and post-secondary education in Canada. I don’t remember seeing people like my mom, like me, in my school books, while I was eagerly spelling _ngl_sh w_rds. I don’t remember writing about a Black person until I chose to write a grade 11 research paper on Idi Amin—only because I kept hearing about him in the news. I didn’t see Black authors on my university syllabi at UBC until I met Toni Morrison in third-year Am Lit, Pecola Breedlove, The Bluest Eye. The only Black character I met in CanLit was “the black wench” a nameless stereotype bashed and tossed around in The Stepsure Letters, by Thomas McCulloch.
How She Read is the book I wish I had in school. It is the outcome of a reflective process of looking back, circling back, and retrieving what I’d missed. The writing process started with language experiments that got me thinking about how I learned and what I learned—the un/intended lessons. Poetry became a tool for me to think through the rules and conventions of reading and writing in English, the very same rules I’ve asked my own undergrad students to follow for the last twenty years. I learned how I had come to accept and embody the language and the rules in my composition spellers without question, how I became a good citizen of English who missed the holes, silences and erasures on the page in front of me as I filled in the ______s.
How She Read is described a “genre-blurring extension” of your ongoing artistic practice. Given this collection is your poetry debut, what made you decide to explore this through poetry? What did you feel was possible through this project in poetry that might not have been possible otherwise?
Over the years, I’ve created a collection of Historical In(ter)ventions, a series of altered history book sculptures that use mixed-media to imagine and make visible BIPOC voices that have been omitted, silenced, erased. In most cases, I am using my materials to investigate the book as a container, unpacking hegemonic structures and the ideological assumptions inside the cover. For example, “My First Janson,” (2019) is a reimagining of my first art history textbook purchased in 1991—the canonical History of Art by WH Janson. Cut in half, pages torn and bound together with knotted black thread, this work is a meditation on what’s missing or misrepresented in the cannon of Western Art.
In How She Read, I wanted to write about the mis/representation of Black women, but in non-academic ways, and, more importantly, I wanted the women in the book to speak loudly, to discuss their representation in specific contexts—to talk back to institutional power. For me, as a visual thinker and craft enthusiast, poetry was the perfect vehicle to convey the many layered voices and ideas communicated across the book.
Poetry is sculpture made of marks and spaces, inclusions and omissions. Poetic form can be rigid, bound by rules and conventions. Poetry can be flexible, pliable, blurred with other genres of writing. Poetry allowed Harriet Tubman to talk back to the writer of a Historica Canada online encyclopedic entry, to fill in the _______s in her sassy oratorical style. Poetry allowed beautician-semiotician Viola Desmond to write a ‘cease n deist letter’ to Canada Post, to school them on what’s not included in her iconic smiling postage stamp. Poetry allowed Delia and Marie Thérèse, two naked slave women to hold the space at the center of the book, to speak from a painting and a photograph, not as exploited subjects or pornographic objects, but as philosophers dialoging about the art and science.
Finally, poetry allowed me to engage directly with my literary heroes. The work is buttressed by Black women writers, Canadian and American, past and present, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison, Afua Cooper, M. NourbeSe Philip, Rita Dove, Lorena Gale, Canisia Lubrin and Chelene Knight, to name a few. I am indebted to the brilliant women in this book—all of them.
Much of what makes the book so vibrant is a particular kind of fearlessness when it comes to language and visual expression. How important is the visual to the way you write poems?
For me, poems are text sculptures, so the visual is integral to my writing process, especially for How She Read, where the shape of each poem is informed by the content. The cool thing about poetry is that the genre has so many forms—all kinds of shapes, and rules and conventions. Once I know the story I’m trying to tell, crafting the visual aspect of the poem helps me think through the content.
For example, in the Grammar of Loss section, Homonyms is about the final interactions between a dying mother and her teenage daughter. It’s a reflection on missed opportunities by an “unfinished woman.” I thought of the mother and daughter as two words that sound the same but are spelled differently—so the sestina seemed like a good choice in terms of poetic form. But, after writing the poem in the conventional sestina form, fixing the repeated words at the end of each line, the poem looked long and clunky. Visually it was screaming, “And now for the crafty sestina portion of this book…” So, to capture the loss and unpredictability in the story, the cutting, the scratching, the snapping, I chipped away at the poem and removed all the unnecessary words. That meant the homonyms no longer landed at the ends of lines. This resulted in a poem that looks and feels like an unfinished sestina.
Reciprocal Pronouns is another kind of visual poem. It is comprised of three circular stanzas that overlay each other. You can start anywhere. It can be read clockwise and counter-clockwise. This is a poem about seeing, about subjectivity, about reading. It’s a different poem when read silently in your head and when read aloud. The experience of reading the poem, the meditative undulating way the reader is pulled into the work, has everything to do with its visual form. If the poem was written in vertical stanzas—the poem would have a linear form, a beginning, an end, and the reader (me included) has less agency.
I’m not interested in word tricks. I love craft, I love form. It took me years to write Homonyms. It was shelved many times until I figured out what I had to do to make it work. The cool thing about learning craft and breaking rules and conventions is that I can hopefully create compelling interactions for the reader.
How She Read reconciles some magnificent distances between erasure and reclamation, able to simultaneously articulate loss and presence. How did the book first find its shape? Did the shape of the final manuscript emerge through the writing, or did you have a sense of it before you began?
Great question. The book emerged through a what feels like a circular, iterative process of working with holes, in words, in sentences, in stories, in voices, in ancestry, in space, in time, in logic. It sounds so weird when I say it here, but that’s how it felt, the writing. Every pass was a process of asking—What’s here now? What needs erasing? And what needs filling in?
From the beginning, I knew I was writing a book about decolonizing language (how we learn to read and write words in English) and about how knowledge is produced and re-produce across a culture (how we learn to read and interpret everyday objects, images and signs).
So I started with a section about rules for language, a section about ways of reading visual images, and a section about the experiences beyond the words and image—what Roland Barthes called the punctum—the thoughts, feelings, memories triggered by imagery. I also knew that the book would move from childhood experiences of engaging with words and stories in primary school readers to more academic engagements with critical and theoretical concepts and ideas—that the “first person” I at the beginning would be transformed into the decolonized i at the end.
As I worked through iterations, moments from the broken language experiments in the first section were woven and sometimes repeated throughout the rest of the book as markers, as touchstones, as meditations. I had to go back through the work and think about who was speaking. That meant keeping track of my subjects and giving voice to all the women who were speaking in my head—who started talking to each other across the pages. This is where working with a great editor comes in very handy. Canisia Lubrin hovered over all the poems, while I sorted out the details. She asked questions after each pass of the final few drafts to ensure every move was intentional.
During this entire process, I thought about what couldn’t be said in words—utterances, gestures—what was not meant to be read but perhaps felt by the reader. For example, the aubade written by the mother in “dangling modifiers” in the Afterword of the book. The ‘shorthand’ or graphic mark-making in Aubade (Sonnet Crown) is the outcome of an iterative process of deconstructing my handwriting down to its essential marks and strokes. For months I wrote and erased letters, words, lines and stanzas into a palimpsest of fourteen stanzas—an opaque block of indelible black ink. Now we have circled back to the visual aspect of the book again—How She Reads ends with a death--with broken language, with a question, with blackness, with silence—with a new beginning.
Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since How She Read was completed? What have you been working on since?
I have this file on my desktop labeled “wtf”. It’s filled with images and stories sent to me by friends and colleagues. “Have you seen this?” “Thought you might find this interesting.”
So, I am working on a collection of poems that look at the poetics of racist imagery that circulates across Internet news and social media. I won’t say it’s a follow up to How She Read, but my first book left me with a set of questions and writing strategies to explore!